Did you know that certain habits can slow down your sight-reading abilities? Read on to find out which are the 10 habits to avoid when reading music and how to break them.
Do you practise with your phone next to you? Do you always go back to the beginning when you make a mistake? Do you write down the names of the notes in the score? We all have practice habits in one form or another, but some are particularly harmful when it comes to learning how to read music fluently. Having these bad habits will not only affect your playing but your sight-reading ability.
Luckily, with a bit of conscious effort, you CAN break these bad habits and turn them into good habits. So let’s look at each of these habits in turn and see what you can do about them. And if it turns out that you don’t have any of these habits, good on you! Keep it that way!
Habit #1: Memorising instantly
Memorising is not a bad thing in itself. However, memorising the instant you learn a piece so that you don’t have to read the score is not something I recommend. Having this tendency is usually a sign that you’re compensating for your lack of reading skills. You’re choosing the easy option, which, in your case, is to rely on your memory, over the hard option, which is to follow the score.
If you want to improve your sight-reading skills, you need to go for the hard option and follow the music. Otherwise, your sight-reading will lag behind.
Solution: Force yourself to read the score every time you practise, even when you’ve memorised parts or the whole piece. Try to notice every detail – the notes, the rhythm, the articulation, the dynamics, the accidentals, etc. There’s always something more to see in the music. Listen carefully to check that what you play is what is written in the score. Aim for accuracy.
Habit #2: Looking down at your hands
Looking down at your hands instead of the music is a bad habit that will slow down your reading abilities. As I explain in my post on how to improve sight-reading, to be able to read music fluently, you need to keep your eyes on the music.
Solution: Practise your pieces without looking down. Practise scales, arpeggios and chords eyes closed or looking straight ahead and try to remember the feel of the black keys and the distance between the keys.
Bonus Tip: If you’re looking down at your hands because you need to check whether you pressed the right key, then it may be a sign that you’re not able to hear the notes in the score. If this is the case, you need to train your ears to hear the notes and intervals. An easy way is to use ear training apps like Tenuto (for iPhone) or Perfect Ear (for iPhone and Android).
You can also listen to a recording before playing your piece so that you’ll know if you played the wrong note. (See The Best Sight-Reading Books where I explain how to use recordings)
Habit #3: Writing note names in the score
If you or your teacher have a habit of writing down the name of every single note, STOP! This habit is THE worst habit to have! Doing this not only makes the score messy but it will slow down your note reading ability. Why? Because you will read the note names instead of the notes and so your reading ability won’t improve.
Solution: Don’t write anything down. Only the starting note if you really need to, or notes with many ledger lines, but that’s it. To learn the notes, you need to force your brain to recall these repeatedly. The more times you recall the notes, the longer they’ll stick.
In the book “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”, the authors explain that:
Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.
In a nutshell: the harder you work to recall a concept, the longer this concept will stick.
To implement “effortful retrieval”, use music flashcards. Start with one deck of cards. Go through the cards and make a second deck with the cards that are giving you trouble. This latter deck is the deck you’ll need to review the most. Go through it a number of times in the space of a few days. When you feel you have learned a card, put it back into the main deck.
Do this for 1-2 weeks until all the cards are back in the main deck. Review the cards again every few days and repeat the same process if there are still cards you can’t recall easily.
Bonus Tip: Rather than trying to identify every single note as you read, look at the shape of the melody. Is the melody going up or down? Is it moving by step or by skip? What are the intervals?
Habit #4: Only playing familiar pieces
If you only ever play pieces you know well, you may end up relying more on your aural memory than on your reading skills. You may even play the way you think it sounds rather than what’s written.
Solution: Choose unfamiliar pieces to force you to read the score.
Habit #5: Always going back to the beginning
If you always go back to the beginning when you’ve made a mistake, you’ll gradually rely on your muscle memory and no longer actively read the score. You will become so used to starting from the beginning that you won’t be able to start from any other bar.
Solution: Next time you make a mistake in the middle of a piece, go back to the start of the bar, NOT the beginning. Force yourself to look at the notes in that bar and play them as written. You may struggle at first, but the more you do this, the more you’ll actively read the music and not rely solely on muscle and aural memory, AND you’ll save so much time!
Bonus Tip: Instead of starting at the beginning, start from the END! Play the last bar, then the last 2 bars, then the last 3, etc. The ending will get as much practice as the beginning by doing this, and it will test your reading skills.
Habit #6: Allowing distractions
If you have your phone near you when you’re practising and it keeps beeping for every message and notification, your mind won’t ever be in a calm, focused state.
Instead, you should train your mind to focus for long periods, so the fewer distractions, the better. Why? Because to be able to practise or sight-read well, you need to be able to FOCUS. So teach your brain to focus.
Solution: Set your phone on Do Not Disturb mode AND put it out of sight! Only use your phone if you need to use a music-related app like a metronome app or when you’re recording yourself. You’ll see how much more focused you’ll be.
Habit #7: Not counting
Not counting will get you in all kinds of trouble so if you have this habit, be sure to correct it!
Solution: Count yourself in before you play and keep counting all the way through, especially the long notes. Make sure you count at the same tempo from start to finish. If you make a habit of always counting when you’re playing, you’ll slowly develop an internal pulse which means you’ll be able to feel the beats without having to count with numbers.
Habit #8: Learning new pieces hands separately
Practising hands separately is fine and often necessary, but by always learning new pieces hands separately, you’re losing the opportunity to sight-read hands together.
Solution: Use every new piece as a sight-reading challenge. Try to play it hands together first before practising it hands separately. You’ll get extra sight-reading practice, AND you’ll get a chance to hear how the piece will sound after all the hard work you put in.
READ MORE >> How to Sight-Read Both Clefs at the Same Time
Habit #9: Playing too fast
The common mistake is to start a piece at a fast speed and slow down for the hard passages. So you end up with different tempi all in the one piece. If you do this when sight-reading, you’ll most likely run into trouble when you get to tricky passages so make a habit of starting at a slow tempo when necessary.
Solution: The short answer is: start slower. Or if you want to know the exact tempo at which to play your piece, identify the tricky spots and with a metronome, work out the tempo at which you can play these comfortably. Write down the tempo at the top of the page for your own reference.
Habit #10: Ignoring articulation/expressive markings
Maybe you’re someone who likes to get the notes and the rhythm right first before adding articulation and expression. A better, albeit harder approach is to include every detail from the start. Why? Because the articulation and expressive markings in the music require you to do specific body movements that you need to learn. For example, playing forte requires a different movement to playing piano. Similarly, a passage with two-note slurs requires a different movement to a long legato passage.
Solution: When learning a new piece, start slowly and try to get every single detail in from Day 1. This may sound daunting, but if you make a habit of adding all the details when you’re learning easy pieces with very few details in the score, by the time you reach advanced repertoire, you’ll be able to apply this with even the most complex pieces.
Bonus Tip: When reading music, learn to associate articulation and expressive markings with body movements. For example, when you see a two-note slur, you should instinctively drop the arm on the first note and lift on the second note. When you see forte, you should automatically use more arm weight. The more automatic you can translate the music symbols into movements, the less brain power you’ll need when sight-reading.
As we’ve seen, what you do in the practice room can have a direct impact on your reading abilities. So the sooner you address these, the easier it will be for you to progress with your sight-reading.
Try the things I’ve suggested to break these habits. And remember that getting rid of a habit will take time, so have patience.
Hopefully, you have very few of these bad practice habits. In the unlikely event that you DON”T have any bad practice habits, congratulations! Keep up the good work and make sure you don’t develop any of these habits!
So, which bad practice habits are you guilty of? Can you think of other bad habits I haven’t mentioned? Let me know in the comments below.
READ MORE >> Why Is Sight-Reading Important?
This post contains an affiliate link, which means I may receive a small commission if you click on the link and purchase the product I recommend, but you won’t be charged more.